This is an article I wrote detailing some of my thoughts on Christian worship that never found a home anywhere on the web or in print. I thought I’d share it here ’till I can find a home for it. Enjoy.
Ritual in Worship
A video called ‘Sunday’s Coming’ from North Point Church in Alpharette Georgia has been making its way around the blogosphere. It’s a sort of parody movie trailer which has the leaders literally speaking the steps of a typical worship service as they are doing them.
The best bits:
“Young hip guy welcoming all with graphic tee and cool, hip glasses. I welcome everybody with arms wide open, revealing my tattoo so you know I have a past.”
“Showing a picture of a puppy and/or a baby from an impoverished Third World nation…Long pause…whispering…repitition…pained expression…long prayer so that the worship leader can get back on stage.”
It’s peculiar that pointing out ritual in church produces such big laughs. The comedy would certainly have been lost on churchgoers in other times. Imagine a first century Jew or a medieval peasant turning to his pal in the pew and saying “Do you notice how every time the priest gets up at the beginning of service he reads that same prayer? And why do we always kneel right at this point?” He would be stating the obvious. But “Sunday’s Coming” is funny precisely because it points out the obvious rituals of church to people that don’t seem to notice them. Worship is and has always been a ritual and the principle characteristic of a ritual is that you do it more than once. So why are we so surprised when our rituals are revealed? Because for the first time in Church history, we believe that we can worship outside ritual. “Sunday’s Coming” shows us how dumb we really are. We’re doing it all the time.
Evangelicals, particularly those that have descended from Anabaptist traditions, tend to think that cultivating authenticity in worship involves ‘breaking a mold’ or departing from a formula. The prevailing idea is that once something is repeated too often, it loses its meaning and the form must be changed. Preferences aside, this kind of thinking does nothing to improve worship in the long run. It is just updating the operating system. If we are dissatisfied with some element of our worship, then it should follow that there is a problem with our particular ritual rather than with ritual itself. Criticizing repetitiveness in an unsatisfying worship experience is like blaming a bad meal on the activity of chewing and swallowing.
But dissatisfaction with worship doesn’t come from nowhere. The Lord desires the full employ of our minds and hearts when going about the business of giving him glory. When we feel that our worship is not doing Him justice, then it is certainly cause for change. But what sort of change is needed? And how do we know the difference between necessary, lasting change and the unfortunate tendency for modern America to change things simply because they are bored of them? The answer: repetition. How do you confirm the results of a scientific experiment? You repeat it. Strong worship traditions repeat the findings and work to build structures that last.
Now it is necessary to shift metaphors, since worship of God is in few ways akin to scientific laws that are uniform in all times and in all places. Worship does not look the same in every generation or culture. Christians should be Christians in and for their time, but we must also be connected to the wisdom of past generations. So how does one balance both contemporary variety and a healthy respect of tradition? The new and the old? There is something to be learned from the traditions that have embraced ritual as the foundational aspect of worship (and have been at it for some time). What is needed is not revolution in the sense of a political upheaval, but revolution in the sense of rotation. Catholics, Anglicans and other liturgical traditions use modified versions of a church calendar which responds to both of these requirements in equal measure. It is a calculated movement of worship which revolves around the life of Christ and marks spiritual time like the celestial bodies turning around the sun. Different truths and disciplines are illuminated throughout the year like the rising and falling of the constellations in the night sky.
Ritual worship is not only a revolution but a trajectory. Good tradition grows like a tree instead of changing with the wind. A historical anchor like the Anglican Book of Common Prayer is especially valuable in turbulent times (such as our own) when changes rage around us furiously and for so many ignoble reasons. The BCP is revised, but not every year (more like every 50). This pace may seem slow to those of us used to our iPhone apps updating every few weeks, but it’s a further practice of worship orienting our time, not time orienting our worship. The discipline of repetition instills a steadiness that if practiced will make the church a sturdy vessel that will move and change throughout time, but at an organic pace. Ritual worship saves us from being reactionaries to culture and instead makes us authors of our own.
Though you are no doubt expecting this article to end with a call to jump ship and join my own Anglican Church (which you can totally do if you want) I want to propose something different. However you worship, don’t be afraid to do it again and again. Write it down. Make an order out of it. As you repeat, weed out the bits that are useless and hold onto the elements that are worthy and good. This process could take a while (just ask the Catholics!) but it is an exercise that is worth the regimen. Let us be unashamed of our rituals, practice them with patience and prune them carefully until we fashion strong and finely woven clothing for the Body of Christ.